This summer the youth at Trinity Episcopal Church will head out on three trips that will take the senior high to Costa Rica, the junior high to Canyon Lake, and the Teens in Training to downtown Houston. Christians are used to calling these summer excursions “mission trips.” So why the change to “pilgrimage?”
“Mission” comes from a Latin word that means “to send.” It was first used by Jesuit missionaries who sent members of their order overseas to establish schools and churches. Foreign travel is still associated with the word.
Originally, Christian missionaries were sent out to teach about the Christian faith, proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, and often set up hospitals, provide potable water, and teach agriculture. There are many missions that continue to serve with and among people all over the world and in America that are thoughtful, respectful, and unifying in their approach to serving others. Unfortunately, the Gospel has too often been put by the wayside and a lot of people have been harmed in the name of Jesus, intentionally and unintentionally. Mission became claiming land and resources in the name of Jesus and harming many people in the process. Mission also began to look an awful lot like a vacation with no focus on building long-term relationships. Christians going on mission trips don’t often realize the history of this innocent word. (We’ll discuss this more in a future blog.)
Christians have taken to the skies and roads for decades to travel to an under-served community to help in areas of poverty and disaster. Too often Christians forget that God wants transformation in the hearts of missioners, too. Really, God wants to take us on a pilgrimage in search of the Christ we claim to follow. Pilgrimage in this sense means to go on a journey as an act of religious devotion.
Our work as Christians is not to do for others, impart our special knowledge on others, fix things, or have all the answers. Our work is to invite God in and discover how all of God’s people can work together for the care and nurture of each other. More importantly, we are to open our own hearts and minds to the transformation God will work in us; to be aware of how life is viewed from another’s eyes, how God works in mysterious ways, for spiritual flexibility, and growth in Christ by seeing Jesus in the eyes of another. This is our pilgrimage—to another place, to God.